Mar 14 2014

Formative assessment: an easy win-win

As Monday’s resource, the HEA report A Marked Improvement: Transforming assessment in higher education, made clear, the issue of assessment is likely to remain a key concern amongst higher education institutions for years to come. In this post, we focus on one of the recommendations put forward by the authors of A Marked Improvement and propose that the current mix between summative and formative assessment be reconsidered, with more importance to the latter being granted. We also argue that more formative assessment, and the feedback that should accompany it, does not automatically translate into more work for teachers but rather that several of the teaching activities already used in lectures and classes could in fact be repurposed to that end.

As A Marked Improvement also makes clear, assessment and feedback remain a constant source of dissatisfaction for students. In particular, students are asking for more and more productive interactions with their tutors. Formative assessment and feedback provide an excellent platform from which to build a dialogue between tutors and students and thus to encourage the latter to improve the amount and quality of learning they achieve (see Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) on the need for and benefits of such a dialogue). Fluckiger and her colleagues (2010: 3) talk about the need to “engage students as partners in providing formative feedback in time for students to modify their own thinking or behaviour to improve learning.”

Indeed, a useful distinction can be made between assessment of learning, achieved through summative assignments, and assessment for learning, done through formative assignments. Thanks to its emphasis on the provision of feedback, formative assessment, if done well, provides the opportunities for students to understand better the expectations of their tutors and the specific demands of their discipline, and engage in a self-assessment process that will result in quality learning and, concomitantly, better academic results. Gwyneth Hughes (2011) goes even further and proposes that we consider the introduction of ipsative assessment (whereby feedback takes into account a student’s previous performance and his/her long-term development). In her view, “ipsative feedback might provide a new driver towards encouraging assessment for learning” (354). While this may not be viable at LSE in the short term, some of the principles behind this proposition may well be worth reflecting upon. Putting a bigger emphasis on formative assessment also makes clear our desire to privilege the quality of teaching and learning as opposed to a limited focus on marks.

So, what can effective formative assessment look like and how can the traditional resistance to it, on the grounds that it is too time consuming, be countered? First of all, it should be noted, and communicated to students, that formative assessment goes beyond “formative assignments”. What is needed is a reconceptualization of formative assessment so that students can appreciate and make the most of the various opportunities for formative feedback and understand better how to use it. An assessment activity, according to Fluckiger and her colleagues (2010: 6), in turn quoting Black et al (2004), “can help learning if it provides information that teachers and their students can use as feedback in assessing themselves and one another and in modifying the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.” Using this definition, it is easy to see that assessment can take many forms, several of which give opportunities for immediate feedback with little or no additional work for the teacher involved. For instance:

  • Several lecturers now make use of personal response systems (“clickers”). These allow lecturers and seminar leaders to test the comprehension of their students as they go along. By allowing the identification of gaps in students’ understanding in “real time”, teachers can highlight the areas where students need to engage more fully with the relevant material and adapt their teaching activities and the focus of their lectures accordingly.
  • Taking a few minutes at the end of a class to recap key elements of the learning that was achieved over the previous 50 minutes is another easy, resource-free technique to provide additional formative feedback to students and, thus, can be perceived as a type of formative assessment.
  • Asking students to prepare and discuss an outline for possible essay/exam questions is another type of formative assessment that can be easily integrated into seminars. As time goes on and students have understood tutors’ expectations in terms of essay writing, the feedback can take the form of peer assessment with pairs or small groups of people commenting on each other’s ideas. This idea was used in the series of MSc dissertation workshops recently organised by the Teaching and Learning Centre and students have commented on the value of this technique. In addition, research has also shown that peer assessment can promote the development of self-assessment skills, thus providing the conditions for the development of independent learners (Andrade (2010). Additional guidance on this subject can be found in the Teaching and Learning Centre’s note of guidance Self-assessment and peer feedback.
  • Several seminars require students to make a short presentation in front of their peers with peer feedback provided immediately after and supplemented by comments from the seminar leader.

In addition, it might be useful to think of these different types of formative assessment (and indeed of assessment in general) at a programme level so that the learning done through formative assessment in one course is capitalised on in other courses. The connections between the different courses should then be clearly communicated to students.


Andrade, H.L. (2010), Students as the Definitive Source of Formative Assessment: Academic Self-assessment and the Self-regulation of Learning, NERA Conference Proceedings Paper 25

Fluckiger, J., Tixier y Vigil, Y., Pasco, R.J. and Danielson, K.E. (2010), Formative Feedback: Involving Students as Partners in Assessment to Enhance Learning, Teacher Education Faculty Publications, Paper 64

Hughes, G. (2011), Towards a personal best: a case for introducing ipsative assessment in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 36(3), 353-367

Nicol, D. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006), Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218

With thanks to Dr Claudine Provencher in LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre for contributing this post.

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One Response to Formative assessment: an easy win-win

  1. Laurie Anderson (Univ. of Siena) says:

    This is an interesting post that makes a good case for incorporating strategies aimed “assessment for learning” into course design and delivery by highlighting how these can also be time-efficient.

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